Big Easy Resilience

Jared Wade


April 1, 2015

new orleans katrina recovery

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and caused up to $250 billion in economic destruction. The city is still navigating a long road to recovery, but as we approach the tenth anniversary of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, New Orleans is betting on better floodwalls and resilience planning to ensure the city never stops being a bastion of culture, cuisine and entertainment.

Over the past decade, people in New Orleans have pointed a lot of fingers and asked a lot of questions: Was the damage from Hurricane Katrina just the result of a natural disaster or could it have been prevented? Who is to blame? Can the city ever be safe again?

A few facts are certain. The storm surge created by Katrina was massive, the levees failed catastrophically, and officials had neglected floodwall maintenance for decades. Responsibility for the fatal failures falls on both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which designed and built the levees, and the local governments, which disregarded critical upkeep.

The blame game is an old one, though. The hows and whys will always have different answers depending on who you ask, and the Army Corps and city officials long ago turned their attention instead to building bigger and better walls to prevent future catastrophes.

After the world watched a U.S. city drown live on CNN, Congress authorized $14.6 billion for the Corps to create and build a solution. It has completed all the major elements of the project, dubbed the Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, which was designed to safeguard the city from a 100-year storm (or one that has a 1% chance of arriving in any given hurricane season).

Mike Stack, the chief of emergency management for the Army Corps, said that the quick turnaround time for the project was a monumental challenge, but one the Corps was able to meet. “The work that we have done and some of the changes in our design philosophy have led to the greatest flood defense that this area has ever had,” Stack said.

The main philosophical change was a move to using hurricane models to determine what a 100-year storm would look like. Previously, the Corps “had a tendency to look at what had happened in the past and design for that,” Stack said.

The largest component of the protection system is on a scale that boggles the mind: a 1.8-mile-long, 26-foot-high wall built across the main navigation route through the Gulf of Mexico. It comes complete with gates that allow vessels to pass and foundation piles that were driven some 200 feet underwater into the soft Louisiana earth. Where there was once just open water, now stands the immense Lake Borgne surge barrier.

This is not the only new mega-structure. Others—the world’s largest pumping station, a floodgate to shut off Lake Pontchartrain, newly armored levees—took similar ingenuity. Stack feels confident the complete protection system will hold up against the nastiest 100-year storm “even if it’s overloaded or it sees forces larger than it was designed for.”

Some believe the Army Corps could have done better, however, with community groups and academics questioning design choices. One notable detractor is Sandy Rosenthal, who founded two months after Katrina and has fought to hold the Corps accountable to the local community ever since.

Among her main contentions is that the Army Corps has disregarded advocacy efforts from local groups like the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East, which disagrees with some methods used in the new floodwalls. For one, they believe that the use of uncoated metal in certain areas below water will lead to corrosion and, ultimately, shorten the lifespan of the protection system. Because the standard of protection is a 100-year storm instead of, say, a 500-year storm, some also wonder if New Orleans is still exposed. When the need for stronger protections becomes apparent in a few decades, Rosenthal and others fear that taxpayers will be the ones who pay—at best, for the costs of new construction or, at worst, with their lives.

Protection vs. Resilience

The concept of resilience has gained favor in recent years, especially as the United States has dealt with so many natural, environmental and economic disasters. So it was not surprising to see the Rockefeller Foundation, in 2013, launch an offshoot called 100 Resilient Cities. As one of the largest philanthropic and grant-awarding organizations in the world, the century-old New York foundation set up this new $100 million initiative to help strengthen cities worldwide.

One of 100 Resilient Cities’ core beliefs is that local governments must be as cognizant of harmful “chronic stresses” as they are of the threat of “acute shocks.” In the case of New Orleans, for example, this is the difference between the ongoing damage done by high unemployment and the specter of a Category 5 hurricane.

“Cities are just as often destroyed by the stresses as by the shocks,” said Maxwell Young, director of communications and marketing for 100 Resilient Cities. Endemic crime, water shortages and an over-reliance on a single industry for economic growth can also prove extremely detrimental, he said.

When talking about a city that was hit by Katrina, however, chronic stresses may seem secondary. Some of the best strategies he has seen come about when public officials develop projects with both resilience and protection in mind. For example, a city can build a floodwall that has a road on top, easing the traffic burden and expediting a route for commercial trucking. Then, the city can add a bike lane to promote healthier commuters and carbon-neutral transportation. That is five birds with one stone.

Such thinking is relatively new everywhere, but has certainly never existed in New Orleans. For decades, the city struggled to reach full employment and provide quality education as residents fled, the economy sputtered and crime rose. Amid the neglect, it is no wonder that there was disregard for levee maintenance.

Today, more city officials are embracing the Resilient Cities view, and the Rockefeller Foundation applauds the way the Big Easy is bouncing back. “While there is still much work to be done, what New Orleans has done is miraculous,” Young said. “Seeing how it’s come back from something that fundamentally threatened its existence is amazing.”
Crisis Management for Everyone

In 2005, New Orleans could not communicate with citizens digitally. It was the beginning of the era when anyone could start a blog, but the only online outlet for people to get emergency updates was, the website of the city’s largest newspaper.

“There was no other place that had information,” said Jeff Hebert, the chief resiliency officer of New Orleans. They have played catch-up in recent years, however, introducing, an app, and various other channels to keep people informed during a crisis.

This is great for the masses, but it may not help the most vulnerable. Many who lost their lives in 2005 were the poorest members of the community who lacked the transportation to evacuate. Others simply did not understand the gravity of the threat.

The city has responded with various programs for those who may not have access to computers. One is an evacuation team that works alongside the federal Citizen Corps to identify the at-risk population. By pinpointing where such people are, the teams can reach them as a hurricane bears down and make sure they get out of harm’s way.

The Evacuteer program is similar, and serves both as a public art endeavor and a disaster preparation plan. Partnering with the Arts Council of New Orleans, the city installed 20-foot-high statues throughout key neighborhoods. They add to the surroundings, but their real purpose is to mark pickup points for people who cannot evacuate on their own. In the event of crisis, citizens can show up at a statue and the city will provide transportation to take them to safety.

With both tech investments and simplistic solutions like these, Hebert believes that the city has gotten much closer to protecting all of its people.

“There is the highly digitally sophisticated side of this, but there is also the analog side that I would call door-to-door, making sure everybody is touched.”

Hiring Herbert

Last November, as part of its partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, New Orleans named its first ever chief resilience officer, Jeff Hebert.

Hebert has been intimately involved in the city’s recovery since Katrina, and with a graduate degree in urban planning from M.I.T., he has found plenty of ways to put his skills to use. Before accepting the job, his main role (and one he still holds) was executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. But resilience planning has usurped recovery administration as his top priority.

Part of resilience planning is accepting that shocks will come and ensuring they can be absorbed. So while the Army Corps protection system is the strongest barrier against a future storm, Hebert is trying to fortify multiple lines of defense to reduce the magnitude of the blow.

Fortunately, New Orleans does not have to rely solely on man-made walls. Given its location at the foot of the Mississippi River, a series of wetlands, marshes and islands also protect the city. These blockades have safeguarded an at-risk population for centuries. The bad news is that they are disappearing. “The city of New Orleans is really at the whim of the Gulf of Mexico,” Hebert said. “Over the past several decades, the erosion of the coastline has left New Orleans more vulnerable.”

To reverse this, the city has partnered with the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) on projects like creating more than 325 acres of new marsh and fighting to stop shoreline erosion near Cameron Parish. One major undertaking even has them dredging 3.3 million cubic yards of sand from 30 miles away to use for beach and dune restoration closer to the population center.

In all, the CPRA completed at least nine projects in 2014 and plans to put more than a dozen up for bids by mid-2015. Hebert hopes this is just the beginning.

“We’ve been able to move through Congress certain appropriations for coastal restoration in Louisiana and across the Gulf Coast,” Hebert said. “As we start adding more funds to the pot, I think we’re going to see more projects.”

Deepwater Horizon: Another Blow

Some of the funding for coastal restoration will come from the Restore Act, which distributes the fines and settlements that BP must pay for damage caused by its Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Specifics are being hashed out in the courts, so the city is waiting for final numbers before completing plans, but Hebert expects the money to bolster the shorelines and wetlands throughout the Gulf Coast.

When the Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the damage was so vast that it created two distinct catastrophes: an ecological disaster and an economic disaster. The coast felt both, but New Orleans was hit hardest financially.

“It had a huge economic impact on the city because we are a working coastline,” Hebert said. Some 40% of the commercial seafood caught in the lower 48 states is pulled from the Gulf of Mexico, according to the non-profit Ocean Conservancy, and much of it is processed in and shipped from New Orleans. The spill prevented fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen from catching their haul, and the effects lasted for years.

But the city absorbed this shock better than expected. Hebert credits that to those who have been living off the Gulf waters for generations. “A lot these fishermen and people who work on the coast have been through multiple disasters before,” he said.

This was true citywide. New Orleans had just faced its worst crisis, and that experience helped it get through the next one. “All those lessons learned from Katrina had a huge impact on being able to mobilize very quickly and coordinate with the federal government in a much more strategic way,” Hebert said.

The government stumbled its way through Katrina, to put it kindly, but in the process, it established new channels for communication, found ways to navigate bureaucracy and developed the know-how to expedite logistics. These gains only accelerated as the city used them more during preparations for the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and countless conventions.

The lessons were difficult and many will never forgive the incompetence that turned a hurricane into something so much worse. Going through multiple disasters, however, has made New Orleans believe it can handle anything the world has in store. “It’s a part of our DNA,” Hebert said.

Challenges Remain

The city is far from perfect, however. “New Orleans is fairly unique because we’ve had a Katrina and we’ve made so many improvements since then,” Hebert said. “But we know we have a lot left to do.”

They have developed plans to increase economic prosperity, reduce violence and reform education, but none are cure-alls. “Even with our social cohesion and economic prosperity work, we have too many vulnerable people who are unemployed and our transportation infrastructure isn’t necessarily where it needs to be,” Hebert said. Further, nearly every major street is under construction as the city replaces underground pipes. The two largest metro hospitals are just now completing construction work. And climate change threatens everything.

Public officials are paying close attention to sea-level-rise models to chart future vulnerabilities. As they begin to understand how the city must adapt, Hebert said, they are also embracing what has become a catchphrase around government offices: living with water.

Since it is below sea level, the city will always have some flooding during a major hurricane. So along with its forward-thinking strategies, New Orleans must also remember that, historically, it was not always so reliant on man-made structures. “We built to fit in with our environment,” Hebert said.

The road to recovery has been long and the path ahead is even longer. From finalizing the flood barriers and rebuilding infrastructure to empowering the poor and creating more jobs, arduous work remains. But the Crescent City is still standing, and there is one fundamental facet of New Orleans, as old as the city itself, that will always ensure Hebert stays optimistic: “Resilience is best exhibited in people,” he said. “In 2018, New Orleans will celebrate its 300th birthday. We’ve gone through hurricanes, public-health crises—you name it, we’ve had it over 300 years. And the people of this city continue to come back.”

Jared Wade is a freelance writer and a former editor of Risk Management.